DURBAN, South Africa, May 2 (Reuters) Dubbed ''Africa's Van Gogh'' for his vibrant landscapes and unfettered style, Anthony Wakaba Mutheki once hawked his works for as little as 1 dollar apiece and flogged empty Coca-Cola cans to pay for paint.
But unlike the Dutch master, who died a relatively unknown pauper, the Kenyan-born artist has become one of Africa's hottest young talents, fetching up to 12,000 dollars for his paintings and wowing collectors at home and abroad.
''You can see the hallmarks of a great artist in his work,'' said South African art critic Alex Sudheim. ''It's like Van Gogh -- Van Gogh didn't go to art school, he just had this powerful urge to create through painting and that is what Anthony does, he just does it his own way.'' Like Vincent Van Gogh, who is famed for his powerful use of colour and coarse brushwork in paintings like ''The Starry Night'', the raw appeal of Mutheki's work is rooted in reality.
Instead of honing his skills at an art academy, Mutheki fine-tuned his talent on the street.
After moving to South Africa from Kenya with a rudimentary training in graphic design, Mutheki struggled to find work, ran out of cash and joined the thousands of African immigrants who eke out a living on the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
He would scrape together money to buy paint then churn out as many works as he could, which he sold for as little as 1 dollar at flea markets in South Africa's economic hub.
After around five years spent on the streets or sleeping in a shelter, Mutheki was spotted by an influential gallery owner who, bowled over by his originality, set in motion a rags-to-riches tale that has charmed critics and local media.
''There is a very strong energy in his pieces,'' said Craig Mark, who spotted Mutheki eight years ago. ''His work is totally unique and the fact that he's not trained allows him to do what he wants. If he wants to stick a piece of fabric onto a canvas then paint over it then he will.'' BOOMING ART MARKET Mutheki is one of South Africa's most sought-after artists and is riding a boom in the art market as Africa's biggest economy enjoys its longest expansion on record.
MORE REUTERS SHB HT0852